Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Guns, Germs and Steel

by Jared Diamond

I've often wondered how Europe become so powerful compared to societies in other parts of the world. It's a fairly simple question but one that I've never conceived of a good answer to. At best the reason would seem to be luck, but that's hardly a satisfying answer and not a strong enough one to oppose the unsavoury racial arguments that the question invites. Evidently I'm not alone in being puzzled by this issue and fortunately Guns, Germs and Steel addresses the question explicitly and offers a surprisingly simple and compelling answer: a society's power is proportional to it's food production capacity, which is in turn dependent on the availability of edible plants and animals that can be domesticated in that part of the world.

The book is aimed at a pop-science level, but is still very thorough and detailed. It convinced me that Diamond's theory is at least the primary cause for disparities in technological level between societies, although I suspect it's not the whole story either. I did expect the book to be more engaging than it is, as the real world historical clash of civilisations should make for gripping reading, but much of the book is dedicated to technical detail about the particulars of plant and animal domestication, and the effect of food production on a society. To tell the truth it's dull subject matter, and it's to the author's credit that he keeps things readable even through these sections with a clever and lively voice.

Nevertheless I highly recommend this book. It contains a huge amount of information that taken together makes you look at all kinds of things differently, from the day to day (I gave Barnes a lecture about why we can't eat acorns one Saturday night while I was dead drunk) to the big picture stuff (whenever anyone says anything vaguely racist around me they can now expect a big lecture about food production). It's been a long while since I read a book that I found myself having to periodically put down in order to think about what it's saying and despite it being hard going in a few patches it's worth persevering, as there's a lot to be learned from it.

2 comments:

Jungle Rhino said...

that's a load of bollucks, europe is no where near as fertile as areas of south east asia. The Mekong or Nile delta's are far more naturally productive. Personally I think the reason europe did so well is that it was HARD to produce food etc. so they were forced to develop a high level of technology and infrastructure to support themselves. This led to spin off technologies which put them at an advantage over other cultures.

P.S. The preceeding hypothesis is based entirely on playing years of 3E games such as civ and MTW and is mostly made up.

Jon said...

The full hypothesis isn't as simple as fertility = technology, although that's a big part of it, the two delta regions you mention were two of the earliest places in the world to develop civilisation.

As well as fertility species diversity makes a huge difference as this increases the number of potentially domesticatable plants and animals. In the end what makes this possible is having the largest contigious inhabitable land area, with preference given to those oriented east-west (europe/asia) rather than north/south (america and africa).